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I had originally intended to use this 13th century B.C. image of charioteers from Tiryns for the cover of Orestes: The Outcast, but the wear and tear on the fresco, and the unevenness of the checkered border made it unlikely.

There is a female counterpart of this image, in which a woman drives a chariot with her female friend as a passenger. So noblewomen could and did drive in those days.

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A reconstruction of the fresco found in the Room of the Lilies in Akrotiri, Santorini. A vision of Theran spring--lilies growing among volcanic rocks, and two swallows cavorting above--before the eruption completely sterilized the island.

Swallows are common in Crete and all around the Cyclades, except for Santorini.  From the Theran Spring fresco, it's clear they once inhabited the island; the 1600 B.C. eruption must have been so massive that it must have imprinted "DANGER! AVOID!" on all subsequent swallow generations.

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The fresco fragment known as the Lady of Mycenae was found in the Cult House below the palace of Mycenae. She is a rather stolid older lady, with ample arms and a sagging chin, offering necklaces to a deity.

Even though it isn’t a very scientific line of thinking, and there is no evidence that the Mycenaeans understood portraiture in the modern sense, my instincts tell me the woman behind the fresco must have been either Elektra or Clytaemnestra.
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The famous Dolphin Fresco, gracing what Sir Arthur Evans called The Queen’s Megaron. What you see today is a reconstruction which is not without its controversy. It’s thought now that the dolphins might have decorated a floor rather than a wall on the level just above, and when Knossos was destroyed for the final time around 1200 B.C., the upper floors crashed into the lower ones, and the fresco ended up lying in the so-called “The Queen’s Megaron.”
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Fresco from one of the rooms inside the Cult House at Mycenae.  A princess and/or priestess offers wheat ears to two goddesses, probably Hera and Athena; the blank area under the goddesses would have been the altar.  The griffin with the princess/priestess signifies the presence of a divinity, but I can’t say with any certainty what the two naked men between the goddesses represent.

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An iconic fresco, the mysterious young Prince of the Lilies graces Cretan postcards and tourist tchotchkes.  Little do the tourists who flock to Knossos each year by the thousands know that the fresco is a fake.  Fake, that is, in that it was reconstructed three fresco fragments that might not even be related to each other.  In the image below, you can see that only the crown, torso, and part of the left leg are original fresco fragments; the rest is a fanciful modern reconstruction.

The Minoans followed Egyptian standards in coloring--that is, they used brown or Indian red for male skin, and white for female.  What is peculiar about the Prince of the Lilies is that his skin is white.  So the original fresco might have depicted a girl rather than a youth.

The fresco you see in the Corridor of Procession when you visit Knossos, and on postcards and other trinkets, is a reproduction; the original is housed in the nearby Heraklion Archaeological Museum.

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Among other things, Minoan artwork is known for its plethora of floral depictions.  It seems that the Minoans, like their Egyptian contemporaries, loved flowers, and wanted them in their homes; archaeologists have found not only fresco fragments with many species of Aegean and Cretan flowers, but the remains of hanging flower pots.  In fact, several floral species known today, including crocus and narcissus, retain some form of their original Minoan names.

Rather than parrot information from my sources, I am linking my readers to an exhaustive but wonderful article on flowers in ancient Crete.  Andras Zeke, the webmaster, has a marvelous blog on the Minoans, with particular emphasis on Linear A, so stay and peruse the articles.

I would also like to take this opportunity to say hello to several new readers.  My articles here are meant to be nibbles of information from the Mycenaean and Minoan periods, entertaining and informative without being too dry or scholarly.  I use my research to write my novels, and currently have a novel out on Kindle: Helen's Daughter, about Hermione, the daughter of Helen of Troy.  What, you didn't know Helen had children?  Yes, she did!  Head on over to Amazon and Smashwords to sample the novel and find out!

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While there is much that we still don't understand about Minoan religion, from the physical evidence it appears that the Minoans had a tripartite belief system. A tripartite altar was found on the western end of the Central Court at Knossos, near the Throne Room, and fresco fragments from the palace's north quarter depict what is probably that same altar as priestesses and other spectators sit on the surrounding terraces presumably waiting for the Bull Dance or some other spectacle.


Below is an artist's rendering of what a tripartite shrine might have looked like. It is not known exactly what the tripartite elements of Minoan religion were, but some have reasonably speculated that the Minoans worshipped the heavens, earth/sea, and the underworld, about which I will discuss in greater detail in a future post. 

Imagery of the tripartite shrine made it as far as Mycenae, where a delicate golden piece was found among the burials of Grave Circle A (circa 1500 B.C.).  If you saw the program The Exodus Decoded, then you saw journalist Simcha Jakobovici present this little appliqué as evidence that the Ark of the Covenant was made by Mycenaean goldsmiths, and that the piece itself is a view of the Ark with the doves, with the Tabernacle's high altar behind.  Sadly, no.  Jakobovici does not know his Aegean archaeology.  The gold work represents a Minoan tripartite shrine, with sacred doves and the horns of consecration. 


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A Minoan maze and bull fresco found near Avaris, Egypt.  Minoan artists were apparently working in Egypt around the time of Tuthmose III.  It has been theorized that, as the Minoan civilization on Crete went into decline, out-of-work artists settled in Egypt and decorated houses and palaces either for Egyptians who liked the Minoan style, or for wealthy Minoan expatriates seeking a better life in Egypt.

Out-of-work Minoan artists also took their skills to Mycenaean Greece, and, from recent archaeological discoveries in the Levant, to the Canaanite cities.

You can read more about the theories surrounding this puzzle here.


Aug. 19th, 2011 01:18 pm
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Fresco painting in the ancient world was buon fresco, which means painting on a thin layer of fresh, wet lime plaster.  The process involved laying down a layer of plaster, waiting an hour, then painting.  Fresco painters would have had seven to eight hours to complete their work, until the plaster became too dry to work any longer; the plaster would be completely dry within twelve hours. 

The process of mixing pigments with wet plaster would have fixed the colors and made the fresco more durable; had the Mycenaeans and Minoans worked a secco, or on dry plaster, their paintings probably would not have survived.  However, it was this same chemical process of mixing pigments with the alkaline plaster that limited the color palette.  This is why you see only reds, yellows, blues, whites, and blacks in Mycenaean and Minoan frescoes.

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A few weeks ago, someone asked why I had used Minoan artwork for the cover art of The Young Lion, the point being that the novel is set in the Mycenaean culture.

The lazy answer is that my stock photo choices were rather limited.  The other answer is that the lion/griffin figure on the cover actually is Mycenaean artwork.

The Mycenaeans took over Knossos in 1450 B.C., two hundred years before the Trojan War, and it was a Mycenaean king, Idomeneus, who led the second-largest contingent to Troy.  So the ruling class that commissioned the artwork you see today at the reconstructed Knossos and in the nearby Heraklion Museum was Mycenaean.

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The Lady of Tiryns.  My watercolor version of an original fresco found at Tiryns.

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Fragment of a 13th century B.C. mural from Orchomenos depicting warriors in boar tusk helmets on the hunt.  Note that the helmets have cheek-guards.

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